“One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is the spring.” So wrote Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac. I wonder at what Leopold would say about the snow geese migration at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area. Each year for approximately two weeks the migration sees a vast number of birds fly onto the lake for roosting overnight. For instance, this year saw an estimated 75 thousand birds on Friday, March 13.(Figures are on the Migration page at the Middle Creek website.)
As Aldo Leopold noted, a thaw brings the geese. Warm weather visited Pennsylvania last week, and the birds took advantage of the warming to begin the trip to their summer homes in the Arctic. Middle Creek, a man made lake surrounded by protected land and farms, is a usual stopping place for the birds. A thaw brings human visitors as well, people coming to watch the spectacle and enjoy the hiking, biking, and running terrain Middle Creek possesses. Last year I visited, and like the geese I returned.
But I wasn’t here at dawn this time. Like last year I had to work into the small hours of the morning on what I call “the day job.” This time, seeing that dawn would bring rain and fog, I decided to head home and sleep rather than drive 90 minutes to get bad photos of the birds. I hiked elsewhere on Saturday afternoon.
Sunday was different. While cold and overcast, it was dry. I was still fatigued from the late hours on Friday and so slept in. Having taken photos of the geese at dawn last year, I thought I’d try sunset this time.
The best place to see the birds is at Willow Point, at the end of a quarter mile paved walking trail. I arrived about 3:30 and headed there. I wasn’t surprised to see very few geese. And I shouldn’t have been surprised to see a crowd of people hanging out at the observation area, looking very disappointed they didn’t see 75 thousand birds sitting around for photographs. Nature runs on its own timetable, not ours. I knew the birds were off feeding in neighboring fields, or in flight from the south. Still, Willow Point Trail is a pleasant walk, and it prepared me for what was to come. And the early visit wasn’t without attraction. We saw a bald eagle land on the ice and start tearing into a dead snow goose.
I stopped at the Visitor’s Center, hiked a stretch of the Conservation Trail behind the Visitor’s Center, and walked around at one of the roadside pulloffs before I returned to Willow Point. The tiny trailhead parking lot was full, so I parked on the road shoulder as dozens of others were doing.
The crowd grew enormously by six PM. The crowd of both people and birds. Flock after flock of snow geese, Canada geese, and tundra swans arrived to roost on the ice.
As we neared dusk and the birds gathered one goose became startled. The flock took to the air and began swirling around, drawing gasps from the people at the Point.
The little girl with her arms raised in the left side of the last photo estimated there were “500 thousand million billion” snow geese at Middle Creek. The Pennsylvania Game Commission figures are probably more accurate, but while my head sides with them, my heart tells me the little girl is right. Whoever she is, I hope she never loses that sense of wonder at nature, and I hope I never do either. Spring is eternal in the heart; sometimes it comes out with a skein of geese and a March thaw.